Trinidad-born, Britain-based writer Monique Roffey has taken down her Facebook page* following fierce criticism of a blog post she wrote for the website of British bookstore chain Waterstones. The post was intended to serve as an introduction to new and emerging writers from the Caribbean who, for the most part, may not be as well known as authors from what Roffey refers to as the “Golden Era of Caribbean Literature”, which includes Nobel Laureates Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul.
But members of the Caribbean literary community have accused her being a “latter day Columbus,” or discovering what was already there, and representing the region inaccurately.
Roffey, perhaps best known for her novel “The White Woman on the Green Bicycle,” which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2010 and the Encore Award the following year, has been sharing her expertise with some of these authors through her involvement in CaribLit, an action group that helps to promote Caribbean writing and publishing. But until she attended the 2012 Bocas LitFest in Port of Spain, Trinidad, it hadn't quite struck her that this new crop of regional writers were all part of her generation:
It was a memorable experience for me because there in my hometown, I got to meet many other Caribbean writers born in the 1960s and 70s. Most of these writers were female, and incredibly they were of varied race, class background, and sexual orientation [...] We all had a lot in common and yet we were all so different; in fact, much of our life experience isn’t common at all. But what was pertinent for me, then, only two years ago, was to come across a constellation of writers of similar age. We were children born into the early years of the Independence era in the region. We were children of the new era, literally.
According to Roffey, existing issues in the region, dating back to colonisation and slavery, have become more complex over time. There are new challenges as well — environmental, economic, even enduring questions of identity have a new face with the advent of cable television, the Internet and social media. Her essay came to the conclusion that this “new generation of Caribbean writers” is more interested in exploring these issues on their own terms than in responding to views from the metropole:
Our generation is no longer writing back, that much strikes me as over for sure. Instead, we are writing for ourselves and sometimes towards each other. We are not only talking to each other, but sometimes arguing too. Some of us are still gate-keeping, asking what is the real deal, who constitutes a true true Caribbean author and who doesn’t. And some of us are too busy writing for such censorious thoughts about identity. These days, the Caribbean writer might be white and middle class, or brown-skinned and privileged, or from Chinese or Syrian extractions; they might be gay or straight, they might be living in the region or in Diaspora. The New Wave of writers has become so much more porous and diverse in terms of their social background. And so, the literature of the Caribbean region is alive and well and very varied and we are charting our own here and now.
Saint Lucian poet and critic Vladimir Lucien called Roffey's post “ahistorical,” arguing that she mischaracterized certain themes as new to Caribbean writing when they aren't. ”She is now the British correspondent for the Caribbean, the Caribbean’s link to the wider world of resources and opportunity; the one who knows the ‘real deal’ about Caribbean writing. Not a gatekeeper however. Not at all,” he wrote:
Roffey’s ignorance also raises the issue that she is trying to abscond from: What constitutes a Caribbean writer? This is not an attempt to gate-keep, but rather creating a means by which one could discern specious and superficial interactions with the Caribbean from deeply concerned, profound engagements with the society. Does being a Caribbean writer merely mean that you were born, or even born and grew up in the region? The question is important though in some circles it has been straw-manned by coalescing it with a perversion of it which I am not sure exists in the way that Roffey claims: the idea of gatekeeping.
Some of the quote from the Waterstones post – including the reference to gatekeeping – was subsequently taken out and there was an editor's note stating that the article was amended on 24 July 2014 at the request of the author. Lucien drew attention to the changes in a new blog post of his own.
At The Eternal Pantomime, one emerging Trinidadian writer, Rhoda Bharath, compared Roffey's post to cultural appropriation:
It seems Columbussing – the act of discovering what is already there, that became fashionable in the 1400s – is STILL very much a thing; and European/Caucasian people ‘discovering’ and appropriating the cultures of the Other, whether to boost their ego or some greater gain, isn't about to die anytime soon [...]
Despite having achieved independence throughout the region (for the most part), spearheading revolutions and overthrowing dictatorial regimes, we just can't be left alone to wade through our issues and develop our space without the added ingredients of judgmental first world comparisons that don't take into consideration contextual issues, and worse, the role of their influence in our shortcomings.
The discussion grew quite heated on Facebook; at first, Roffey was engaging the discourse, then decided to take down her Facebook page. There has been some debate as to whether the argument about Caribbean literature degenerated into a personal squabble. Jamaica-based blogger and writer Annie Paul noted:
When is a writer a Caribbean writer was a debate that raged on Facebook for a while in May and seems to have spun off this searing critical response. Lucien takes the discussion into territory we don’t examine enough. The question ‘Who has the right to call themselves a Caribbean writer?’ appeared in the original discussion on Facebook and remains a cogent one. Do Caribbean writers have the responsibility to represent the corpus of writing from the region with a depth born of serious engagement and research are additional questions he’s asking.
While he was not impressed with her prose style, Facebook user Nadge Frank Augustin felt that Roffey succeeded in reaching her audience:
When Roffey says, ‘Our generation is no longer writing back, that much strikes me as over for sure…', who comes to mind? As far as my limited information goes (ie. the website the article is published under), I would think that the answer was obvious: the British reader-consumers of the article.
Augustin simply did not see how you could avoid sounding like you are introducing something new to an audience if that is, in fact, what you are doing:
Does she come off as a ‘latter day Columbus'? Who, in such a position, wouldn't sound the same? Which one of us, if put to promote Caribbean Lit to a bunch of Vietnamese, Germans, South Africans…wouldn't sound as if we are bringing something ‘new’ to them? Quite frankly, I think she did an ok job in presenting to a non-specialist audience a whirl of names for them to go discover contemporary caribbean writers for themselves. In the world of business, I think they call that plugging.
*The author's Facebook page is reportedly back up.